April 7th to May 15th 2016
Reception: April 8th 5 – 8pm
Open 12-6pm daily through April 25th.; then by appointment.
Programmed as part of the Glasgow International festival of contemporary art, Merlin James and Carol Rhodes present E(I)LSHEM(I)US at 42 Carlton Place.
Deskilling in contemporary art is widely talked about, and the use of ‘outsider’ vernaculars is widespread. ‘Bad painting’ remains a dominant trend, and the casual, provisional and abject frequently feature as tropes. Kitsch is a perennial concern. Rarely considered, though, are the achievements of earlier explorers in such areas, working right across Modernism.
American painter Louis Michel Eilshemius (1864-1941) is one of the great originals of twentieth-century art. Academically trained in the USA and Europe in the 1880s., he developed a highly personal manner in landscape, figure, subject and genre painting, ranging from the apparently amateur to the visionary, the near-abstract, and the surreal. For decades largely ignored or ridiculed by critics and colleagues, he was championed by Marcel Duchamp from 1917 onwards. Given two solo exhibitions at the Société Anonyme, he became a cult figure through the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, exhibiting at progressive galleries in America and Europe. Paradoxically, he virtually ceased to paint after the early ‘twenties, devoting himself instead to the role of being ‘the famous Eilshemius’.
In many ways he fits into a distinct artistic ‘type’: a solitary maverick with a love-hate relationship to the Academy; alternately self-deprecating and outrageously boastful; eccentric to the point of mental instability; a quasi-mystic; a self-proclaimed polymath and prolific dabbler in other fields alongside his painting; a shameless self-publicist, self-publisher, self-mythologiser and purveyor of home-spun theory and philosophy. Such traits, notable in figures like Blake (a major hero for Eilshemius), have become archetypal marks of the independent, innovative artist – initially misunderstood and derided, then recognised too late. Eilshemius’s assumption of this identity, eventually abandoning painting to ‘curate’ his own persona and reputation for the final two decades of his life, was surely part of Duchamp’s fascination with him. (Duchamp’s Etant Donnés, secretly created during his own ‘retirement’ from art, is a distinctly Elishemian image.)
The Eilshemius cult among the Avant Garde was certainly fuelled by the aged artist’s eccentric life and personality, and his case highlights the degree to which artists’ personalities can (pace the theory of ‘biographical heresy’) legitimately be absorbed into the aesthetic significance of their work. There is a piquancy in the fact that the painter at different periods restyled his signature as either ‘Eilshemius’ or ‘Elshemus’ – as it were toying with the ‘I’ in his identity.
But the charisma of Eilshemius’s works does not rest purely on their association with either the Dada guru who re-contextualised them, Duchamp, or the ‘Mahatma’ who created them. (This title was assumed by Eilshemius after a retrospective in India.) One convert to his cause was former detractor Henry McBride, the art critic who after the 1924 Duchamp-organised show of Eilshemius confessed: ‘Suddenly, like another Saint Paul, I see a great light, and the scales drop from my eyes. The pictures at the Anonyme Gallery are completely lovely.’ The qualities that McBride, like others, woke up to in Eilshemius do not exist only in the eye and mind of the beholder but also inhere in the paintings as aesthetic objects. Trying to sum up the artist’s appeal, writers have tended to resort to formulations like ‘giving life to the surface of the pictures’, or ‘knowing how to compose a true painting’. Certainly, energised materiality and composition play their part. The startling shifts of scale, audacious play with compositional possibilities, wild deployment of texture and gesture, and reconciliation of physical surface and illusion – all these are exceptionally strong in Eilshemius. Emotive, often narrative subject matter is often equally important. Mental isolation, febrile imagination, frustrated ego and sexual fantasy are all also at work in the paintings, and Eilshemius certainly relates to expressionist art. Meanwhile the unique device of the painted cartouche frame that surrounds many of his motifs (an idea he sought to patent in 1911) only highlights the what all his pictures suggest – an at once intuitive yet super-conscious exploration and demonstration of art-making and art-meaning itself.
Since his death there have been periodic revivals of interest in Eilshemius. In this century, a survey show at the National Academy of Design in New York in 2001 referenced his affinities with contemporary painting, and a group of his works featured in the major show of the Michael Werner collection a Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2012. More recently the Kunsthalle Göppingen staged a project around his self-published pamphlets, and a major book by Stefan Banz has appeared on Eilshemius and his influence on Duchamp. In 2015-16 seventeen paintings have been included in the exhibition ‘The Shadow of the Avant Garde’ at the Folkwang Museum, Essen; and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York has staged a significant Eilshemius show.
For GI 2016 Rhodes and James show around fifteen works by Eilshemius at 42 Carlton Place.
Some publications and ephemera document the ‘Eilshemius cult’ and the breadth of his work.
Two seminars will take place in the exhibition, on Tuesday, May 3rd. at 5 pm, and on Friday, May 6th. at 2.30 pm. Organised primarily for Glasgow School of Art and university students, they are open to other participants by arrangement. Please email if interested.
For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org
L. M. Eilshemius (signed ‘Elshemus’), Volcano, oil on board, 21.5 x 41.5 cm., c. 1911
Nymph in a Pool, oil on board 25 x 24 cm, (1919)
War, oil on board, 79 x 100 cm (1917).